One was by land; now two is by sea. The same all-star team that created the estimable Due Terre (“two lands”) in Bernardsville in 2007, last fall launched an impressive sibling about twelve miles south.
Due Mari (“two seas”) in New Brunswick adds a seafood focus to the pasta expertise that gave Due Terre its strong foundation. The teammates are consulting chef/partner Michael White, a luminary who also runs Manhattan’s foodie-favored Convivio; French-born partner François Rousseau, who was general manager of the Ryland Inn and serves as GM and sommelier/partner of the two Dues; and executive chef/partner Bill Dorrler, a self-described “Jersey farm boy from Flemington” who logs time in both restaurants every day.
Due Mari serves several Due Terre dishes but adds more seafood. “We refuse to coast in the kitchen,” says Dorrler, 36. “Even our simple dishes, like fried calamari, we’re perfectionists about. We want to be great.”
Occupying an angular, high-ceilinged space, Due Mari is not particularly intimate. Gauzy curtains over the tall windows do infuse a touch of romance, but harsh pinlights dangling over the tables feel stark rather than seductive.
More alluring is the centrally located, twenty-seat, oval bar. “So many patrons want to eat at or near the bar,” Dorrler says, “that we really pumped up our tavern menu.” A pizza oven will soon arrive to augment the tavern menu’s sandwiches, salads, Kobe burger, and salumi-formaggi platters, not to mention Due Mari’s regular appetizers and tapas-size sfizi (an Italian word meaning cravings, pangs, impulses, or small pleasures.) Wherever you sit, you will experience exceptional service. Servers are passionate and knowledgeable about food and wine.
The marinated swordfish sfizo, richly flavorful, is aromatically slow-poached in olive oil with orange and lemon zest. “The hot olive oil cooks the fish just like citrus juice cooks seviche, slowly and lightly,” Dorrler says.
Larger appetizers (antipasti) are mainly terrific seafood creations. Crudo, often called Italian sashimi, includes an appetizer of sushi-grade tuna slices with basil oil, fried capers, and shards of medium-hot chiles. Plump, perfectly cooked octopus gains a purple hue and faint sweetness from long simmering in Sangiovese red wine. The Due Mari cocktail features scallops, shrimp, and calamari, each poached separately for the right doneness, then tossed in faintly garlicky olive oil.
Whether you regard fried calamari as a sports-bar cliché or as protein’s proud rejoinder to french fries, Due Mari’s is a knockout. “Every step of the way, we are watching that squid—the exact amount of salt and pepper in the flour; the temperature of the oil; the number of seconds in the fryer,” Dorrler says. “Everyone loves this calamari, so we must be succeeding.”
There’s much more to love. You could happily surrender to landlubbing entrées like lamb loin with a zesty citrus-tinged spice rub or crispy chicken direct from Due Terre’s menu, all crackling skin and moist, flavorful flesh. Or you could set sail with splendid mains like hefty Jersey dayboat scallops in a seasonal preparation: this spring’s involved shaved fennel and roasted cipollini onions in a basil-fennel reduction. Scottish salmon, naturally farmed in its native river, results in flesh more flavorful than that of penned-in fish. Golden-beet risotto provided an elegant counterpoint in color and flavor.
Swordfish involtino is more complicated and just as captivating. This Sicilian recipe from Convivio calls for fresh Jersey swordfish rolled around a stuffing of breadcrumbs, pignolis, and dried currants plumped in fish stock. The roll is coated in panko breadcrumbs, then, says Dorrler, “shallow-fried, somewhere between deep-frying and pan-searing.”
When I reviewed Due Terre in 2007, I was dazzled by the house-made pastas. Due Mari’s—handmade every morning in the New Brunswick kitchen—are almost as impressive. They are served individually or in a tasting menu for two or more. Meltingly soft gnocchi in pristine tomato and basil sauce will pass muster with any purist. Agnolotti pasta filled with creamy robiola cheese from Emilia-Romagna is complemented by a delicious sauce of diced butternut squash in brown butter with a splash of vincotto, a sweet grape-juice reduction.
Chitarra spaghetti is named for the stringed, guitar-like implement that cuts the delicate fresh pasta into strands. Due Mari’s comes dressed in light, tarragon-tinged tomato sauce studded with big, firm, white Gulf shrimp and chunks of South African lobster tail in the shell. (Dorrler says he feels the shell protects the meat’s flavor as well as its texture.) But why use frozen lobster and shrimp? To my taste, even seafood frozen on deck loses something. Dorrler says he buys fresh Maine lobsters when he can, but their size and texture are inconsistent. “The chitarra is Due Mari’s best-selling pasta,” he points out. Still, I’d rather see it done with fresh catch.
Pastry chef Denise Cinque’s desserts seem more restrained than those I savored at Due Terre, where she holds the same title. The two standouts were zucchini bread pudding with pumpkin seeds and vanilla panna cotta crowned with candied pistachio bits (or, more recently, fresh berries). The panna cotta is best spooned between sips of Moscato dessert wine from Rousseau’s mostly-Italian wine list. It’s an excellent way to prolong an excellent evening.
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